With the first anniversary of the state of alarm almost upon us, I was looking back at stuff that had been written a year ago. Expecting to find blanket coronavirus coverage, I was reminded of an article on this very day in 2020. It made no reference to the virus, but in a way it might well have done. But that was before we were faced with the full awfulness, before all the columns were written seeking to make sense of it and also before the visions of post-Covid started to be offered.
That article concerned a book by two economists - Carles Manera and Ferran Navinés - the former of whom was the Balearics finance minister from 2007 to 2011. The book’s title was (and is) ‘The Invisible Industry: 1950-2016’. It was all to do with a sustainable model for tourism and drew on the development of tourism from the fifties onwards.
In 1987, Navinés had advocated a zero growth approach to the number of tourist accommodation places. The only growth policy, he argued, should have been with price. The following year, 6.7 million foreign tourists came to the Balearics. Over seven years from 1981, the growth was 70%, there having been 3.9 million tourists in 1981. By 2019, there were 13.7 million. Growth of just over one hundred per cent over a period of thirty years was not as dramatic as it had been, but it was of little comfort to Navinés.
Elsewhere, he has explained that capital productivity in the tourism sector experienced a “great fall” from the mid-80s. This was as a direct consequence of the growth in the stock of accommodation places. The degree of use of accommodation beds declined as a ratio of the number available because of the continuous growth.
Business and economic performance was not as good as it had been when the tourism model was “compact”. There was less efficiency in terms of capital and output; tourism therefore became less profitable. Moreover, Navinés argued, there was a loss of efficiency in an environmental way. Hotel operations had been clustered in “closed” resorts, but these began to get out of control and had their impact on land.
In this regard, although he didn’t mention this, he was alluding to the so-called Benidorm Effect, the resort having received plaudits for the way in which it has taken advantage of high density tourism and tourist operations in a compact area in deriving benefits of a sustainable character. Essentially, use of resources is dedicated to a specific area, is controlled and is more efficient.
Economists like Manera and Navinés now strive to find compatibility between sustainability and the principles of competitiveness and productivity. For tourism in Mallorca, Navinés suggested, this could mean that the island becomes the Switzerland of the Mediterranean - “five star” in terms of its tourism, its environment, its labour market and working conditions and its society.
What was being said a year ago does now have a sharper focus precisely because of Covid. There are greatly diverging opinions as to how post-Covid tourism will look like. One set has it that tourism will be “slower”, that demands will have altered, that numbers will not return to what they were.
On the other hand, there are those, and they include Prime Minister Sánchez, who believe that the level of tourism won’t be greatly diminished. He has spoken about there being 80 million foreign tourists in Spain by 2023; not so far off the number in 2019.
I’m inclined to agree with this latter view. Far too much, it seems to me, is being made of a “new” tourist purely because of Covid. The style, the nature of tourism may change to some degree, but was this not the case pre-Covid? Otherwise, the motivation to have holidays will return on the massive scale that it was, whether this is in 2023 or later.
But can such mass ultimately be compatible with the aims of sustainability, competitiveness and productivity? For Manera, it is important to consider competitiveness in a different way to how mainstream economics defines it, as this entails keeping labour costs low and therefore salaries.
So, a combination of sustainability (in particular the enhanced management of natural resources) and innovation, something which Mallorca is good at when it comes to tourism can - in theory - lead to a virtuous state of competitiveness and to the “five-star” island.
To achieve this, however, implies two things. One has to do with price in order, for example, to pay for higher salaries. The other is scale. The same mass of tourism cannot be sustainable under these circumstances. Rather than an end to growth in accommodation places, as was advocated in 1987, it would be de-growth - a reduction. The mass will return, but it will, over the long term, be cut and perhaps quite dramatically so. Pricing would determine this.
The influence of Covid, and compared with this time last year, has been to sharpen the motivation for a five-star island.